Why Meg Is Right to Lay Low

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Several times a week, I read about how terrible, just terrible it is that Meg Whitman is declining interviews from California reporters, skipping debates, and not behaving like a serious candidate for governor.

Steve Poizner’s campaign has made this almost a daily drumbeat; “If Meg Whitman can’t stand up to questions, how can she stand up for California?” read part of a state from Poizner senior advisor Kevin Spillane last week. And over at Calbuzz, Phil Trounstine and Jerry Roberts are “fuming” about Meg’s “ducking serious questions from California political writers for months.”

Expect more of the same today, when her GOP rivals — Poizner and Tom Campbell–are scheduled to debate the measures on tomorrow’s special election ballot.

I have a bit of advice for the Meg bashers: Take a deep breath. And get a life.

Look, I’m a reporter. And I take a back seat to no one in demanding that candidates for high office should debate each other and answer serious, detailed questions from journalists, the public, and just about anyone who has anything important to ask. During the 2003 recall campaign, I covered the Schwarzenegger campaign and wrote plenty of stories accusing Arnold of dodging questions. And it’s true that Meg has done very little of this, and she needs to.

But, guys, take a look at the calendar for goodness sakes. The election isn’t a 60-day recall campaign. The Republican primary is next June — more than a year away. There’s plenty of time between now and then for Meg to answer every conceivable question about the state, her record, and her plans.

In fact, I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s interest for the gubernatorial campaign to be going at full tilt right now. A long campaign is decidedly NOT in the public interest. No one except for insiders is paying any attention now, and insiders really shouldn’t be paying attention. California needs every bit of attention and political energy focused on finding a solution to its budget crisis and cash crunch. Unless gubernatorial candidates have specific, useful things to contribute to solutions, they would be doing us all a favor by shutting up.

And I fail to see how answering questions in May 2009 is going to help the person who will be the new governor of California in January 2011. I’d rather that candidates of both parties not commit themselves to particular stances right now. Next year, when the budget and economic picture may be clearer (let’s hope so), then we’ll need an intense and serious debate among the candidates. But not now.

I think it’s fine if some of the candidates (I’ve been particularly impressed by the policy discussion Tom Campbell has conducted on his blog) want to take tough questions now. But some of the candidates have major cities or government agencies to run; in these difficult times, they should focus more on those duties than an election that’s still a year away.

In terms of preparing for the campaign, here’s my best advice for Whitman and her opponents: take a vacation this summer, read some thought-provoking books, spend time with their families, and get some sleep. Then, when fall arrives, you can launch full time into a death march of questions and debates that will be long enough for all of us.

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